Editor’s note: This is a live account of COVID-19 updates from Friday, March 18, as the day unfolded. It is no longer being updated. Click here to see all the most recent news about the pandemic, and click here to find additional resources.

Over 30 companies across the world will soon begin making generic versions of Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill thanks to an agreement negotiated on Thursday. The deal is expected to make the antiviral pill more accessible to the world’s population.

Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci is warning of a possible rise in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. due to an increase in BA. 2 sub-variant cases in the UK. Fauci’s warning comes as U.S. resources to respond to the pandemic dwindle.

We’re updating this page with the latest news about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the Seattle area, the U.S. and the world. Click here to see the rest of our coronavirus coverage and here to see how we track the daily spread across Washington.

As offices open and mask mandates drop, some anxieties set in

Employers are embracing a workplace atmosphere reminiscent of pre-pandemic times — elevators jammed, snack tables brimming, face coverings optional — even as a new subvariant of the omicron coronavirus spurs concerns about health and safety. Across the country, office occupancy has hit a pandemic high, 40%, reached just once before in early December, at the same time that indoor mask mandates drop.

After several false starts in calling workers back, company leaders now seem eager to press forward. A flurry of return to office plans have rolled out in recent weeks, with businesses including American Express, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Microsoft calling some workers back to their desks. Many of those companies followed state and local governments in easing COVID-19 restrictions, arguing that ending mask mandates could make workplaces more pleasant. But some workers, especially those with compromised immunity or unvaccinated children, feel uncomfortable with the rush back to open floor plans.

“Masks have created a real psychological barrier to getting back to office culture,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, a business group. “As long as things are going in a positive direction with COVID, I think the relaxation of mandates will work for the vast majority of people. As soon as we see a reversal, I think we’ve got trouble.”

Read the full story here.

—Lananh Nguyen and Emma Goldberg, The New York Times

State health officials release WA Forward plan for next phase of COVID response

Washington state on Thursday evening released its plan for the future of COVID-19 prevention and surveillance as the region moves into the “next phase” of response, though certain details remained vague.

State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah previewed the plan — named WA Forward — this week, and said it would focus on engaging families and communities in continued COVID education; preventing further spread through vaccines, testing and masks; and preparing health and data systems to monitor disease trends and hospital capacity.

“This is a long-term forward plan to keep people, families and communities safe, protected and healthy as we move to this next phase of the pandemic, while continuing to monitor COVID-19 across the country, the globe and certainly here in Washington,” Shah said.

The plan, which state officials say will be updated as needed, lays out the Department of Health’s main goals for the year, though it lacks specifics on how exactly each objective will be implemented.

Read the full story here.

—Elise Takahama

LL Bean sales grow 14% during second year of pandemic

A greater interest in the outdoors during the pandemic helped to drive double-digit revenue growth for L.L. Bean, allowing the board to provide a healthy bonus for workers Friday.

Sales grew by 14% during the retailer’s 2021 fiscal year, the biggest gain since 1993, and a cash bonus of 12% was awarded to workers, officials said.

“We had a fantastic year,” CEO Steve Smith told The Associated Press.

Smith said the company bet on strong performance and increased the volume of orders from vendors as shoppers began snapping up outdoors gear at the start of the pandemic.

“People clearly reconnected to the outdoors, and the outdoors became a critical component in people’s lives,” he said.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

US adult smoking rate fell during first year of pandemic

The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic saw more Americans drinking heavily or using illicit drugs — but apparently not smoking.

U.S. cigarette smoking dropped to a new all-time low in 2020, with 1 in 8 adults saying they were current smokers, according to survey data released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adult e-cigarette use also dropped, the CDC reported.

CDC officials credited public health campaigns and policies for the decline, but outside experts said tobacco company price hikes and pandemic lifestyle changes likely played roles.

“People who were mainly social smokers just didn’t have that going on any more,” said Megan Roberts, an Ohio State University researcher focused on tobacco product use among young adults and adolescents.

What’s more, parents who suddenly were home with their kids full-time may have cut back. And some people may have quit following reports that smokers were more likely to develop severe illness after a coronavirus infection, Roberts added.

The CDC report, based on a survey of more than 31,000 U.S. adults, found that 19% of Americans used at least one tobacco product in 2020, down from about 21% in 2019.

Read the story here.

—Mike Stobbe, The Associated Press

State health officials confirm new coronavirus cases, deaths

The state Department of Health (DOH) reported 1,054 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday and 1,193 on Thursday. It also reported 60 more deaths over those days.

The update brings the state's totals to 1,445,223 cases and 12,333 deaths, meaning that 0.85% of people diagnosed in Washington have died, according to the DOH. The data is as of 11:59 p.m. Thursday. New state data is reported on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In addition, 58,835 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus — 143 new hospitalizations. In King County, the state's most populous, state health officials have confirmed a total of 370,613 COVID-19 diagnoses and 2,623 deaths.

Since vaccinations began in late 2020, the state and health care providers have administered 13,152,641 doses and 67% of Washingtonians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to vaccination data, which the state updates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Providers are currently giving an average of about 4,951 vaccine shots per day.

The DOH says its daily case reports may also include duplicate test results, results assigned to the wrong county, results that are reported for today but are actually from a previous day, occasional false positive tests and other data discrepancies. Because of this, the previous day’s total number of cases plus the number of new daily cases does not add up to the new day’s total number of cases. State health officials recommend reviewing the dashboard's epidemiologic curves tab for the most accurate representation of the state's COVID-19 spread.

—Daisy Zavala

German lawmakers vote to abolish pandemic restrictions

Lawmakers voted Friday to abolish most of Germany’s coronavirus pandemic restrictions despite a surge in cases with almost 300,000 new daily cases.

The Bundestag passed an amendment to the pandemic rules in a 388-277 vote with two abstentions. The upper house of parliament, made up of Germany’s 16 states, is expected to consider the measure later Friday.

The changes mean that the requirement to wear face masks will be dropped for most public settings from Sunday, though they may still be required on public transport. Visitors of care homes will also continue to need negative COVID-19 tests, but these will not be required any longer in other walks of life.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Americans just shrug at flu: Does that signal future attitudes about COVID?

When Dr. Arnold Monto, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan, lectures about influenza, he starts by saying, “Flu is bad.”

“You don’t have to start a lecture about hypertension by saying, ‘Hypertension is bad,’” he noted. It is self-evident.

But he has to convince his audiences that flu is, in fact, bad.

In good years, it kills Americans in the low tens of thousands and sickens many times more. Yet even in the time of COVID, flu, the other respiratory killer caused by a virus, is underestimated. Almost half of American adults do not bother to get vaccinated against it. Despite the ongoing COVID experience, researchers and historians do not expect Americans’ attitudes toward flu to change much.

“Statistics on flu have been given to the public; the public has been beaten to death with them for decades,” said Dr. David Morens, a flu researcher and senior adviser to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “And they just don’t care.”

Some researchers and historians are examining attitudes toward flu for clues about how Americans will deal with COVID in the years to come. Will COVID, like flu, be a serious infectious disease that the public shrugs off even as it continues to cause large numbers of deaths each year?

Public attitudes toward flu, historians and public health experts say, are revelatory — and illustrate the paradoxical thinking about risks and diseases.

“It’s a story of how we get used to living with the toll of a virus and don’t count it or see it or care or fear it too much,” said Dr. Robert Aronowitz, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Read the story here.

—Gina Kolata, The New York Times

As omicron’s BA.2 subvariant pushes up cases globally, here’s what it looks like in WA

While omicron’s subvariant known as BA.2 races through Western Europe and prompts new spikes in cases, COVID-19 trends remain on the decline in Washington state, which has recorded a fairly slow spread of the mutant so far.

But some local researchers are questioning what its long-term impact could be in the United States and are predicting it could overtake the initial omicron strain in the coming months.

BA.2 first emerged in the U.K. last December and over the past few months has spread throughout Europe. The World Health Organization said at the end of February the subvariant accounted for more than a third of new omicron cases around the world.

In the United States, about 35,000 cases of BA.2 have been reported, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that, as of last week, BA.2 accounted for 23.1% of all new coronavirus infections in the U.S., up from 13.7% the week before. The original omicron strain remains dominant.

In Washington state, BA.2 was first detected in January — and levels have remained fairly low since then, state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said this week. The original omicron strain, known as BA.1, still accounts for more than 90% of new cases, according to a recent variant report from the state Department of Health.

Read the story here.

—Elise Takahama

Oregon’s COVID-19 cases sharply decline

The Oregon Health Authority is reporting steep declines in weekly COVID-19 cases, but the agency also reported higher death numbers.

OHA reported 35 new COVID-19-related deaths Wednesday, bringing the state’s death toll to 6,933. There were 355 new confirmed and presumptive cases, for a state total of 700,660 since the pandemic began.

Hospitalizations: As of Wednesday, there were 242 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Oregon, 18 more than the day prior. Overall, however, the weekly trend statewide is downward, OHA said.

Read the story here.

—Cody Mann, Albany Democrat-Herald, Ore.

China weighs exit from ‘zero COVID’ and the risks involved

Even as authorities lock down cities in China’s worst outbreak in two years, they are looking for an exit from what has been a successful but onerous COVID-19 prevention strategy.

A study, interviews with Chinese public health staff and recent public messaging by government-affiliated experts indicate that China is exploring ways of slowly easing its zero-tolerance approach — with the emphasis on slowly.

Zhang Wenhong, an infectious disease specialist who is part of Shanghai’s COVID-19 response team wrote that the public needs to know the virus is becoming less deadly if people are vaccinated and their health isn’t already compromised. “We should carve a very clear path and not spend all our time debating whether we should continue zero COVID or coexist (with the virus),” Zhang wrote.

Change does not appear imminent, with more than 15,000 new cases this month in multiple outbreaks across the country, as well as an even larger one that has shaken Hong Kong. For now, the government is sticking with the tried-and-true policy of lockdowns, repeated mass testing of millions of people and a two-week or more quarantine for overseas arrivals.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

Health chief warns of COVID funds shortage

With the nation yearning for a new normal after its long struggle with the coronavirus, U.S. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra warned Thursday that vaccines, tests and treatments will be “stuck on the ground” unless Congress provides the additional funds the White House has demanded.

“We have reached a pivot point,” Becerra said in an interview with The Associated Press. “How well we pivot is on us.”

Omicron variant BA.2, which is causing a virus rebound in Europe and Asia, is gaining ground in the U.S., although overall cases here are still in decline. And Becerra said a funding impasse with Capitol Hill could hamper the Biden administration’ s promising new strategy called “Test to Treat.”

Under that plan, people could go to their local drugstore for a COVID test, and if they were positive, receive medication they could then take at home. A “one-stop shop,” he called it.

But “if you don’t have the dollars to let it fly, you’re stuck,” Becerra said. “You’re stuck on the ground.”

Read the story here.

—Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, The Associated Press

Facing its first COVID outbreak, Samoa goes on lockdown

Samoa will go into lockdown from Saturday as it faces its first outbreak of COVID-19 after a woman who was about to leave the country tested positive.

Although health authorities have so far found just a single case, it is the first time Samoa has found any unexplained cases in the community and likely points to an undetected outbreak that has been going on for days or even weeks.

A government report leaked online indicates the woman had visited church services, a hospital, stores, a library and a travel agency since first feeling ill last Saturday.

Samoa and several neighboring Pacific island nations were among the last places on earth to avoid virus outbreaks. But the more transmissible omicron variant has changed the equation, and one by one the island nations have been succumbing to COVID-19.

Since the start of the year, Kiribati, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands and American Samoa have all experienced their first big outbreaks.

Read the story here.

—Nick Perry, The Associated Press

Hong Kong’s COVID infections exceed 1 million amid outbreak

Hong Kong’s cumulative coronavirus infections have exceeded 1 million as the city grapples with a widespread outbreak that has killed more people than the reported COVID-19 deaths in all of mainland China.

Health officials reported 20,079 confirmed infections on Friday, taking the total since the start of the pandemic to 1,016,944.

Nearly 97% of those came from Hong Kong’s current wave, which began in December. Since Feb. 9, nearly 5,200 people have died from the virus.

Read the story here.

—The Associated Press

With a flurry of high-profile COVID cases, D.C. is again on edge

A flurry of high-profile coronavirus cases in the nation’s capital — including in people who have been around President Joe Biden — has raised new questions about the trajectory of the 2-year-old pandemic, even as the White House has signaled confidence in the country’s ability to resume normal activities.

On Thursday, Biden canceled face-to-face meetings with Prime Minister Micheál Martin of Ireland after Martin received a positive result from a coronavirus test during a gala event Wednesday night that both men attended.

In the past week, Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, tested positive for the virus, as did former President Barack Obama. At least nine House Democrats tested positive this week after a party retreat in Philadelphia and late-night voting at the Capitol.

White House officials said Biden, 79, had not been in close contact with anyone who tested positive and did not appear worried about his safety. They said the administration was monitoring a highly transmissible subvariant known as BA.2, which is spreading rapidly in parts of China and Europe, but that there appeared to be little reason to think there would be a U-turn back to social distancing and universal mask-wearing in the United States.

Read the story here.

—Michael D. Shear, The New York Times

Italy marks 2nd anniversary of haunting COVID-19 milestone

Italy on Friday marked the second anniversary of a tragic milestone of the coronavirus pandemic: the day when a convoy of army trucks had to transport the dead out of hard-hit Bergamo because the city’s cemeteries and crematoria were full.

Premier Mario Draghi opened a press conference Friday with the leaders of Spain, Portugal and Greece by recalling that it was Italy’s official Day of Remembrance for COVID-19 victims. The Health Ministry called for Italians to observe a minute of silence, President Sergio Mattarella paid tribute to the dead and the city of Bergamo held a commemoration at its living memorial: a park of newly planted trees.

Italy became the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe after the first locally-transmitted case was confirmed in late February 2020 in the Lombard city of Codogno. But nearby Bergamo soon became the hardest-hit province in the hardest-hit region. By the end of March 2020, Bergamo had registered a 571% increase in deaths compared with the five-year monthly average, the biggest increase in Italy and one of the biggest localized increases in mortality rates in Europe.

Read the story here.

—Nicole Winfield, The Associated Press

Catch up on the past 24 hours

Canada's changing rules for travelers are finally promising relief for Washington border towns, where businesses saw "catastrophic losses" from a lack of cross-border travelers. Here are the new rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people who want to get into Canada, starting April 1.

A flurry of high-profile COVID-19 cases is putting our nation's capital on edge, creeping ever closer to President Joe Biden as he confronts the challenges of managing a split-screen pandemic. Amid the reopenings, Dr. Anthony Fauci is pointing to three signs that cases could soon rise again.

Samoa is hurrying into lockdown as it faces its very first outbreak.

—Kris Higginson